Song Pairing: Pretty Woman, the Roy Orbison version
In mid-bite of a fried green tomato slathered with creamy chipotle mayo, it hit me: Soraya Spencer is Julia Robert’s twin. Soraya’s gigantic smile, sparkly brown eyes, vivid with passion, and her animated speech conveys the eager, kind and hopeful Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman; the sweet but gritty girl seeking a better life and taking care of others seeking the same along the way. That is Soraya Spencer and her Gather Kitchen business model.
Soraya’s story has been told before but I only read them before meeting her in the bright, communal feeling Gather Kitchen in Preston Center. She’s originally from Algeria and lilts a lovely accent which sounds French-ish, she’s well-traveled, well-educated and lives the American Dream with her husband, son and Gather Kitchen family in Dallas. I visited her space on Luther Lane that’s been open since August, though word of its presence just reached me in April.
New menu items for Gather Kitchen launched in early May and include the Crepe Taco, a nod to her French culinary education, and the Gather Burger, a grass-fed beef burger spiced with Ras El Hanout among other things, that’s stuffed with sweet potato fries. Also new are the aforementioned Fried Green Tomatoes, coated in gluten-free panko crumbs, tapioca flour and spices. They are served with a chipotle mayo that was perfected after more than 30 attempts. Soraya had never tasted chipotle before coming to Dallas, but she whipped them together with boiled cashews, almond milk and other ingredients to come up with this condiment masterpiece that I will order as a side for sweet potato fries on my next visit.
My favorite item on the menu is the poké bowl. I normally avoid doing the hokey poké because its ubiquity makes me really wonder how fresh the tuna is at all these places, but I acquiesced here, fortunately. Gather Kitchen’s take demonstrates Soraya’s brilliant ability to combine flavors and textures. Her travels and training combined with an innate talent for taste were summarized for me in this dish. The combination of the spicy wasabi, kiwi, oily rich tuna punctuated with crunchy nori and togarashi and ginger, cooled by cucumbers and smoothed by avocados was refreshing, exciting and comforting all at once.
In keeping with her approach to serving clean, healthy food, there is no soda or alcohol on the menu. Rather, “Wellness” concoctions such as the Immune Boost with lemon, ginger, honey and cayenne and Cacao Baby with raw cacao, raw maple syrup, almond milk, vanilla and Himalayan salt are served hot or cold. An assortment of waters, kombucha and lemonade are also available, as is coffee. Alcohol is served at the Boozy Brunch every Saturday morning.
The vibe at Gather Kitchen Preston Center is very down-to-earth. Warm but sparse décor, exposed brick and woody tables make it feel a little a little Magnolia Market-y, feminine but not girly, strong but not harsh. Like Soraya, I suppose. She’s gathered a team of underdogs to run her restaurants, folks who are enjoying second chances and third acts. Men and women with scars inside and out, with tough breaks and heart breaks in various stages of healing. She requires survival for herself, also a victim of abuse, and her team. She coaches, trains, mentors and leads. She believes and loves and is loved back. As we were wrapping up our meeting, a former employee came in to pick up some food for take away. I can’t tell how old she was, sometimes life makes you look and feel older than you are. She stopped to speak with Soraya, and they gave each other words of encouragement and advice. Then the older woman kissed Soraya on the top of her head, a motherly, tender gesture that almost made me cry with its sweetness.
Gather Kitchen is a place to nourish your body and soul. Clean, healthy food with flavor combined with a positive mission should be a winning combination. Her space on Luther Lane has turned over a few times, which is why I am asking you to try this restaurant. Give it a chance, check it out and support this local gem of a restaurant and the pretty woman who owns it.
UPDATE: Gather Kitchen closed the Preston Center location. The Downtown location remains open and thriving.